The Streak at 15 Years (Pt. 1 & 2)
Column #89 by John K3WWP. A little background on this column first. Because of the long interruption in the publication of the Keynote due to problems that are well documented now, this is a condensed version of what was originally intended to be a multi-part column so it is a bit long. Part I was published so long ago that Nancy thought it would be a good idea to publish the whole multi-part column including Part I in this issue. Some material may be a bit dated now. I'll make no effort to update it here, but will have an update on some things in my next column. So here we go.
Back on August 4, 2009 my streak of making at least one QRP CW QSO per day reached the 15 year mark or 5,479 consecutive days (on January 7, 2011 it will be 6,000 days). At that time I presented an interview about the streak in my web site (http://home.windstream.net/johnshan/) diary.
The interviewers were hams who submitted questions about the streak. The first few questions were from local ham Tom WY3H, former newspaper reporter, good friend, and president of the NAQCC.
WY3H: How did you get startted in ham radio and when?
K3WWP: It was back in the early 1960's when I tuned away from our local Pittsburgh station KDKA on the AM BC band and heard WHO in Des Moines, IA. I thought it was wonderful you could hear a radio station from so far away. I tuned around some more and heard other distant AM stations. Then I wondered if I could get even more distant stations if I hooked up some kind of long wire antenna to the radio. I did so, connecting it to the tuning capacitor where I saw the internal loop antenna was connected. Not knowing much about radio at that time, perhaps I connected it to the oscillator section of the capacitor. Anyway, somehow that changed to tuning range of the radio and I heard Radio Switzerland as my first ever short wave station. After hearing other SW BC stations, then I heard this station with someone talking as if he was on the phone who identified himself as W3CYG. I later found out he was a local amateur radio operator named Red Claypoole. I didn't think much about it at the time, but some time later a friend of mine, Larry Hooks, was showing off his CB radio to me, and mentioned he was going to get his amateur radio license. That sounded intriguing to me, so I decided to try to get my license also. Of course then you had to learn Morse Code to get all classes of license except Technician. So he and I studied the code together, and I was immediately fascinated by it. When we were ready, Larry and I went to the aforementioned W3CYG to take our Novice exam. I remember that session as clearly as if it happened yesterday although it actually was 47 years ago now. Red was fooling around with the key sending a few letters just to let us get familiar with his sending and the sound of his code practice oscillator and to relax a bit. Suddenly I caught him sending R U READY? Larry didn't catch it, but I did and said I was ready. Red sent us the 5 WPM code test which we both passed, then gave us the written part of the test which we also both passed. The info was then sent off to the FCC, and in a couple weeks on April 3, 1963, Larry was KN3WWW and I was KN3WWP.
WY3H: How did you learn CW? What method did you use?
K3WWP: I honestly don't remember. It just more or less came to me like learning to talk as a baby. I listened to the W1AW code practice sessions, but that was more to increase my copying speed after I initially learned the code. Also the increase in speed just came naturally as well, and it wasn't too long before I worked my way up to the point of getting the ARRL code proficiency awards through 35 words per minute. Unfortunately the dates on the little endorsement stickers on the award have faded away so I can't say exactly when I reached each speed level.
WY3H; You operate CW exclusively, why?
K3WWP: CW is an exact form of communication. A dot and dash sent together mean A - period. There aren't any variations of saying A as there are with voice. That's simplistic, perhaps, but I like exact things. I don't like change, so I found this exact mode of communication and stuck with it over the years. I also like CW because it requires something the other ham radio modes don't - mental exercise. You don't really have to use your brain to use voice on the ham bands, and you can tell that quickly by simply listening to some of the things that are on the voice portions of the ham bands. All the other digital modes use a computer or computer chip to do the thinking. Morse Code is the only mode that requires you to use your brain to interpret what is being said. I like that, as mental exercise is important in keeping a healthy brain.
WY3H: What is your favorite key? (straight key, Iambic, etc.)
K3WWP: Most of the time I use a CMOS Super Keyer Mark II that I built from a kit in the mid 1990's. The paddle that operates it is a Bencher that was given to me by my friend Mike KC2EGL a couple years ago. Before that, the paddle was a homebrew one made from two straight keys mounted bottom to bottom and used upright in a standard paddle configuration. When I do use a straight key (in our NAQCC sprints, for example), my current favorites are two homebrew keys I made for use in our annual NAQCC homebrew key sprints each November. (NOTE: Since the original interview, I now also have a Vibroplex Lightning Bug courtesy of Larry W2LJ and a WinKeyer USB courtesy of KC2EGL which I use from time to time with the aforementioned keys.)
WY3H: Your current streak started 15 years ago, but just how?
K3WWP: My friend Eric KB3BFQ who used to live next door are sports fans and sports deals a lot with various kinds of streaks such as Lou Gehrig's 2130 consecutive games played streak subsequently broken by Cal Ripken who played 2632 games in a row before he missed a game. Eric and I wondered how streaks could be applied to ham radio and thought of the idea of seeing how many days in a row it would be possible to make a contact with my simple equipment. I still haven't found a definite answer other than to say it is at least 5,479 days and counting.
WY3H: What are some of the memorable events in the streak? Your most memorable QSOs for example.
K3WWP: That question could lead to writing a book since there were many. One of my most memorable QSO's came just a few days ago when I worked Mirek VK6DXI near Perth Australia which is just about as far away from Kittanning as you can get and still remain on Earth. I've worked Australia many times in the streak, but this QSO was on 40 meters and it came when the sun hadn't yet set here. Both Mirek and I are just about certain it was a long path grey path QSO which would mean my QRP signals travelled over 14,000 miles from here to there. Australia also figures in other memorable streak QSO's. I worked VH6HQ on 30M a couple times. The first time he answered my CQ, I figured it was a Canadian station when I heard the initial V, then after I got VK I thought he must be portable somewhere in North or South America. However he was near Perth Australia. One of the times we worked, shortly after the QSO ended, my phone rang and when I answered, it was VK6HQ calling (VERY) long distance. He wanted to know a bit more about my setup here and we chatted for a few minutes. Another event was working Hawaii on 80 meters not once, but twice, and almost three times in this year's ARRL DX contest. What a thrill to hear KH6MB and a few minutes later KH6LC come back to my call. The QSO's were not all that difficult either. They did involve a few repeats of my info, but both were completed successfully. A further attempt with a third station didn't get beyond K3W??. A mini-streak within the streak is memorable. From November 23, 1999 through February 11, 2000 I made at least one DX QSO each day. Then after missing a day, I started again on February 13 and continued through July 15th. The second streak was 154 days long which made 235 out of 236 days I worked some DX. More about the overall streak and the mini DX streak can be found on my web site. I must also mention my first Japanese QSO with JA3ZOH. It took a long time to get that first Japan QSO, but now I have around 180 or so. The first QSO with Asiatic Russia was also memorable, as were several DXpedition QSO's where I had to break big pileups to get the QSO, but I'd better quit here and let you ask your next question.
WY3H: Tell us about the web site.
K3WWP: It was initially started in 1996 to describe the history of how WA8EOH and I started the CW County Hunters Net back in 1966, and slowly evolved into a site that promotes the use of Morse Code and QRP on the ham bands with many features designed to encourage such use by showing examples of how efficient Morse is, even with my very minimal QRP and simple wire antennas setup. I think that seeing what I've done in contests, DXing, awards, the streak and so forth does encourage other hams to try Morse. In fact, I know it does because I've had countless hams mention that my site led them to (or back to) CW. I've had almost a half million visits to the site over the 14 years of its existence.
WY3H: I think your readers would like to know a bit more about your professional work life. I know you worked in radio broadcasting. Tell us more about that?
K3WWP: Originally I had planned on a career in Astronomy, but got discouraged because of the very non-astronomical curriculum I had to take in college to even get close to working in Astronomy. I switched to a study of electronics at Gateway Tech in Pittsburgh thinking about a career in that field. While studying there it seemed a career in broadcast engineering would fit me very well. I got my commercial FCC First Class Radiotelephone License and after a very brief stint training for our local emergency operations center, my application to WPIT in Pittsburgh was accepted and I became an engineer there. My job eventually evolved to the point where I did just about everything at the station except being a salesman. I did on-air work which at first involved just giving station breaks, then newscasts, and finally some DJ work with country music and religious music. I also assisted in the production of spots, religious shows, and ethnic shows. I worked with the office computers helping with program scheduling, billing and the like. It was a very enjoyable career not only because of the variety of work I did there, but because the staff were all very wonderful people to work with all the way up to the manager. My work there could consist of another whole interview, but I'll close here for now.
Thanks Tom, for the opportunity to answer those wondeful, pertinent questions.
Now on to the questions submitted by my web site visitors.
Carl N5XE: Are all the QSO's from your home location, and, if so, what about the times you were not at home?
K3WWP: All are from Armstrong county and virtually all the QSO's are from my home. A few were made in 3 QRP ARCI Hoot Owl sprints at portable setups at the QTH of Tom WY3H a couple of miles south of here. Also I operated one CQWW DX contest from my late cousin's QTH a couple miles east of here. I'd say well over 99% are from the shack in my house
N5XE: Also, hope you never got ill, but if so, how did you handle that?
K3WWP: I did have one period of a few days when I stayed at my late cousin's house (separate from the CQWW DX contest) while recovering from a brief non-serious illness. During those days she drove me, or I drove myself into town to get my daily weather readings and my streak QSO. The weather readings, by the way, are an even longer streak going back to January 1, 1960 although I was helped with that by my mother, aunts, and a friend while I went to college, technical school, and worked in Pittsburgh.
Larry W2LJ: Were there any ever times that you thought you might not make a contact due to whatever circumstance and that "This might be the end"?
K3WWP: Not really. I only recall one day during a very severe geomagnetic storm that the bands were virtually dead, but late in the afternoon I did manage to make a very minimal, but good QSO. That was probably the closest the streak ever came to ending. Otherwise, it is normally quite easy to make at least one QSO per day because of the efficiency of Morse Code under all conditions.
W2LJ: What was the lowest power you have ever used to make a streak QSO?
K3WWP: I believe you mean of my overall 50,000 QSO's in the streak, and not the first QSO of each day. Probably the second alternative would be 930 mW when working one of our NAQCC sprints or challenges and the first QSO came in one of those events. Overall, it's easier to answer. 50mW in a QSO with KB4GID in AL, and as far as DX, 60mW in a QSO with P49I in Aruba.
W2LJ: If you had to do it all over again, would you do it again? Any changes you would make?
K3WWP: That's an intriguing question, to be sure. To be honest, I don't know. I guess the best way to look at it is to think how I would react if the streak ended today. Would I start another one? Probably not, knowing the extreme commitment it took to keep this one going. As for the changes, definitely not. It would have to be QRP/CW/simple wire antennas. QRO would be too easy, as would big gain type antennas. And is there any other ham radio mode besides CW? I don't know any.
W2LJ: Any words of advice to someone who might want to emulate you?
K3WWP: One friend of mine (VA3RJ) did emulate me. Oh, there were others also, but let me tell you about him. He did a streak with QRO power, CW, and a simple antenna, but after (I believe) 1,000 days he said it was just too easy and quit. So I would say to get the most satisfaction from such a streak it should be with the same qualifications as mine. Oh, and another friend (N2ESE) started a (QRO/CW) streak the day he got his vanity call (and has made 2 QSO's every day since for 4 years and a couple months as of the end of 2010). I think that's neat. I also must say that I've found that it is not really as hard to do as it sounds. Actually getting the QSO doesn't take up all that much time each day except on a few days now and then. But you must be aware that obviously it does take time away from other things and be prepared for that.
Paul N0NBD: Hi John, I have been thinking of a question to submit but after following your writings for a while, I come up short. I already know quite a bit of your life, the "streak", of your fishing, and other activities. I suspect if there were less than a thousand miles between us we could sit in the radio room with a "cup of joe" and shoot the breeze about a lot of things. So lacking a question, I will ride along and await the interview.
K3WWP: I appreciate your comments, Paul. We've gotten to know each other very well primarily by email, and it would be nice to have a visit some day. I know we would if we lived closer together.
Baltasar EA8BVP: Do you think to put another wire antennas to compare the results or to get better results in your QRP operation? I don't know if the question is correctly build because of my low English level.
K3WWP: First of all Baltasar, your English is just fine. I really don't have the room on this small lot to actually do any antenna experimenting, and I don't really think I need to because what I have seems to work so well. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broken, don't fix it." Oh I have fantasized what it would be like to have even better bigger antennas, especially for my contesting work. I know, without meaning to brag, that I am very skilled at contesting, and could do much better with a better equipped station.
Dave AA7EE: It is to be expected that without using QRO and gain antennas you will not be able to contact every single station you hear. Do you find that there are many stations you call that don't reply to your call, or have you developed something of a sense for who will be able to hear you? In other words, do you have a pretty good idea in advance, whether a station will come back to you or not?
K3WWP: I like to get a lot of my streak QSO's via calling CQ. That way if someone answers me, I'm pretty sure they are copying me well. Also in contests, I can be pretty sure that when I answer a CQ, if there is not a pile-up, I will be answered since contest ops are the best CW ops in the world and have the best receiving equipment. That leaves the situation when I answer someone's CQ outside of a contest. I had never thought about it, but I guess I have pretty much learned over the years who will hear me and who won't. There's no hard and fast rule, but generally if a station is strong here, I should be strong there as well, and a QSO will result. That doesn't always work, of course. He could be listening off frequency and not hear me, or have a very high local noise level, or any number of other factors. The converse is true also. Sometimes I will answer a very weak station not really expecting an answer, but he will come back to me and give me a 579 report or better. On the whole I probably get about a 75% or better response when I call someone outside a contest. If I'm not getting at least a 90% response in contests, I generally QRT and try later since I hate to slow contesters down by making them struggle to copy my signals with many repeats. Oh, and incidentally even QRO stations with big antennas can't work everyone they hear.
AA7EE: Do you think you will ever run QRO again?
K3WWP: Actually going by the definition of QRP at the time, I've run very little QRO. When equipment wasn't all that good, relatively speaking, QRP was defined as 100 watts or less INPUT to the final amplifier. So my 75 watts input then was well within the QRP definition. I don't know offhand just when the definition was changed to 5 watts OUTPUT for QRP, but depending on when that happened, I could have quite a few or even a lot of QRO QSO's with my various powers from 10 to 75 watts I used in the 70's and 80's. However since 1992 when I returned to the air after a period of inactivity, I have been strictly QRP at 5 watts or less output power, and I have no need to ever run more power than that again, unless as one of my web site poll choices says this month - "In an emergency situation". Actually to be completely honest, I have had 3 or 4 QRO QSO's since 1992. A couple just to make sure my TS-570 would work at higher power levels if ever needed in an emergency, and one accidental one on 6 meters when I neglected to set the power to 5 watts for all 3 6 meter segments on my TS-480SAT rig. In case my answer got lost in all that wordiness, NO, I will never run QRO again except possibly in an emergency.
AA7EE: Do you have any interest in other modes, or is it CW all the way for you? Are there any other modes you think you might want to try in the future?
K3WWP: Oh boy, an easy question with no explanation needed. I'm CW only and always will be.
AA7EE: How much longer are you going to continue with the streak?
K3WWP: Until something completely beyond my control brings it to an end. Illness, terrorist attack, total power outage, severe geomagnetic storm lasting a whole day or longer, death, our government outlawing ham radio, etc.
Geoffrey AE4RV: Did you ever use a bug (in the streak)?
K3WWP: No, I've only used a bug for a very few QSO's back in the 1960's. Now it would take intensive training to use one again as my mind and fingers are solidly trained in the use of a keyer with its automatic dashes versus the manual dashes of a bug. (NOTE: As mentioned above since the interview, I have a bug. Surprisingly to me, I can seamlessly switch between keyer and bug despite the different actions in making dashes. I often use all three types of keys in a single QSO)
Geo N1EAV: Seeing that there really are no set rules to your streak, would the streak be over if, lets say, you had to have some kind of surgery or something that kept you from your station over a couple days. Or maybe just radio blackout due to conditions. Perhaps something weather related could keep you off the air. There's probably any number of things out of your control that could keep you from making a qso.
K3WWP: I suppose if you consider what the streak means now, and that is a showpiece that demonstrates that CW is an extremely efficient and still very useful mode even with my very simple setup, there is one answer, while considering it differently, there are other answers. In the first case, if I was completely 100% unable to be on the air some day between 0000Z and 2400Z, that would not disprove in any way how efficient CW is, and shouldn't affect the streak although it obviously should be noted as a gap in the streak. If simply considering the number of consecutive days such a QSO was made, obviously that would definitely end the streak and a new one would have to be started. When Lou Gehrig couldn't play any longer because of what is now known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease", his playing streak was over, period. It's not an easy thing to decide, and as Geo states further on in his email, it would be interesting to see what you, my diary readers think on the matter. You cleared up a different matter about the streak when in a previous mini-poll you told me it would be perfectly OK to make a schedule with someone to continue the streak, even though personally I don't think that is right. Anyone can work a neighbor in town any day he wishes which doesn't prove anything about the greatness of CW.
Ed KB3SZZ: I would love to know something about your technique for snagging QSOs. Is there a particularly good place to position your call when CQing, relative to other ops?
K3WWP: I've answered that before in one of my Keynote QRP columns, I believe. Briefly, I tend to stray not too far from activity on a ham band. If someone is tuning across a wide empty spot in a band, they may tune very quickly and tune right past a weak QRP signal. Whereas if you stay within a few kHz of other activity, tuning rates slow down as that other activity is examined, and it may be easier for your QRP signal to be heard. If a band is totally unoccupied, you don't have that choice. Then I would call CQ near commonly used frequencies like the QRP or FISTS frequencies.
KB3SZZ: Do you usually do a lot more answering of CQs, rather than CQing yourself?
K3WWP: I prefer calling CQ myself when I'm just looking for an ordinary QSO. I find it exciting to never know who I'm going to work in advance. If you answer someone else's CQ, you know who you are working, obviously. That is fine also, if you hear an old friend, new state, rare country, etc. calling CQ. Several of my most memorable QSO's I mentioned in an earlier answer came from CQ's. The VK6HQ QSO's for example. Also it was a thrill to have TA3D from rather rare Turkey answer my 30M CQ one time. It's thrilling to have prominent contesters that I admire like K4BAI and K4LTA for two examples, answer my CQ (outside a contest, I mean). There are many other QSO's I could mention that are more thrilling for me because they answered my minimal QRP CQ.
KB3SZZ: Regarding DX contacts, will operators from other countries avoid slow speed QSOs due to a fear of changing band conditions, or is someone like me just as likely to make a contact as anyone who can copy the callsign and answer their CQ?
K3WWP: We're getting more into everyday operating questions now and straying from the streak, but Ed is a new ham, and we've become friends via email and an on-air QSO, so I'm going to answer this as the last guest question in the interview. I'll still do my best to answer any other questions you may have on any topic in the future though. I believe that the majority of DX operators will work anyone at any speed who calls them. This is true especially in contests and especially near the end of contests when every additional QSO ups their score. Now if a DX station is involved in working a big pile-up, although he may be willing to answer a slow operator, you can be assured that other ops waiting to work the DX will become impatient. Therefore if you are a slow operator be sure to send your info as briefly as possible. If the exchange is just RST for a DXpedition, just send TU 599 and nothing else. I always believe in being polite, hence the TU. If it's a contest, and the exchange is RST and a serial number send only TU 599 001 or just TU 599 1. You'll gain respect from the DX station and those waiting to work him as well.
John K3WWP: Now some questions from me to me. Do you think the streak has some importance in ham radio or is it just done for your personal satisfaction and nothing else?
K3WWP: It's always nice to do things to achieve personal satisfaction and to be proud of the accomplishment, but if that's all it were, the streak would have ended long ago. However, in this day and age, many hams are living in housing with limited antenna space or even antenna restrictions, and because of the cramped quarters there is a lot of susceptibility to TVI and RFI. In those situations, about the only alternative many think they have is to lose access to the wonderful hobby of ham radio. I think the streak shows them there is another alternative. I've proven conclusively with the streak that if you use CW, you can still succeed extremely well with QRP and simple wire antennas in those situations. I think making daily QSO's under those conditions to the tune of 15 years, 50,000+ QSO's, 200+ DX entities, WAS, WAC, 4 zones shy of WAZ, and many certificates in contests has given encouragement to many hams to try ham radio again in their restricted situations. And hey, I guess that does involve a lot of personal satisfaction and pride after all because helping folks in whatever way possible is the bottom line in life.
John K3WWP: I work or hear in other ways from many hams who are rediscovering the joy of CW. I wonder if the streak contributes to that. What do you think?
K3WWP: I think some may have done so because of the streak showing them how effective CW is and/or because they see how much fun I've had in the streak. However I'm sure the main reason is efforts by two wonderful CW clubs, FISTS and NAQCC that exist to promote the use of CW on the ham bands through their many varied activities. The NAQCC at QRP power levels only, and FISTS at all power levels.
John K3WWP: When I worked at WPIT, I helped engineer and sometimes take part in a program called On the Traffic Beat with my good friend Nick Nicklas. When he interviewed someone on his show, many times the final question would be something like this which I ask you now. Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven't covered?
K3WWP: I think everything has been pretty well covered by the excellent questions asked by the several interviewers. But I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has ever commented on the streak over the 15 years. There has never been anything remotely close to being a negative comment. All either congratulate me, thank me for the encouragement it has given them, ask if I can give them tips to help them succeed as I have, and other such positive matters. The interview has been fun, and I hope we can do it again when the streak reaches 20 years in 2014.
Next column, another streak within the streak like the DX streak mentioned above. Be sure to 'tune in' in the next Keynote. 73 to everyone.